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In Austin, Texas, it's a neck-and-neck race between art and commerce at South by Southwest

Wednesday, Mar 31 1999
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You're just faking! Elvis is here; we know it. Tell us where he is! Show us Elvis!"

That quote comes from an early '80s drawing by Raymond Pettibon, currently hanging in the Austin Museum of Art. It's a small drawing, part of a larger exhibition of rock-related artwork. The piece is easy to miss, surrounded as it is by gaudier, wall-sized paintings devoted to the Beach Boys, the Supremes, and Chuck Berry. But even in simple pen and ink, it pulls you in: The character speaking so beseechingly is a cherubic, weeping girl with angel wings on her back and a halo hovering above her head. Similar angels in silhouette flank her.

They're music fans, and you don't see too many of those in Austin, Texas, at the South by Southwest music festival -- at least not ones without an agenda. Once upon a time -- Austinites and SXSW veterans will tell you -- the five-day music festival was a carefree, fun-loving get-together. Now, or so the party line goes, it's a debutantes' ball, featuring more than 800 bands and corrupted by corporate sleaze, especially now that major labels are restructuring and dropping musicians who don't perform well financially. During the festival, you can't swing a dead cat in this town without clouting some label rep or publicist, not to mention musicians.

And swinging dead cats is about the only gimmick that hasn't been tried. San Franciscans Dura Delinquent, who didn't apply in time for an actual showcase, rented a flatbed truck and drove around town playing their songs, and as manager (and driver) Michelle Andersen wisely pointed out, it was "the best publicity we could've gotten." During his growling, incandescent show at the Paramount Theater, Tom Waits made mention of the stunt; the first time he overheard them driving past his hotel, he was amused by the novelty, but "after the 15th time, I shouted some expletives." Andersen ran into Waits on the plane back home. She gave him a Dura Delinquent tape.

And then there's Ben Morss, frontman for Sacramento's Pilgrims, who spent a day wandering around the Austin Convention Center wearing a homemade T-shirt plugging himself. "SCHMOOZE SHIRT," he wrote on it in black marker. "I played keyboard on Cake's new album SACPOP PILGRIMS." And if any members of Cake had been there to see him at it? "They'd kick my ass," he said, laughing.

Well, you can't blame a guy for trying. Or can you? In a perfect world, musicians wouldn't have to hire lawyers to avoid financial rape, they could make enough money to live on in the do-it-yourself system, and they'd never have to play the schmooze. Rock bands, as they say, could just do it for the kids. But in the real world, art and commerce have to live with each other. Which isn't always a bad thing: The Motown and Stax catalogs, or wherever your favorite three-minute pop song calls home, are the result of profit motive as much as creativity. But with the conference engineered around tightly-scheduled 40-minute sets, and panels generally formed around "How to Break Into ..." concepts, commerce gets more space to move around.

Lucinda Williams tried to make that point in her keynote address to the assembled badgeholders, and one wished she was able to articulate it better. Instead, between playing acoustic versions of her own songs, she was noticeably nervous and leaned hard on platitudes about how you "shouldn't let anybody take your power away," and that "I don't think major labels are working anymore," and "This country is dying a slow death."

Well, great. What do you do about that, except, oh, don't let anybody take your power away? Assuming, of course, that you have any to start with. Perhaps Williams had trouble answering that question because it's unanswerable. Or maybe it's because, as a Grammy-winning artist on Mercury Records, she's implicated. Easy for her to opine about clout and power in the music industry. She has it.

"It's a bit for the elderly, isn't it?" asked the manager of a German music Web site, in the cab back to the airport. It was the Monday morning following the conference; SXSW attendees were checking out of the headquarters at the Hyatt Regency, and members of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners were checking in.

The German has a point. SXSW is about rock music first and foremost, and that's a genre that doesn't matter as much in a pop world that now demands inclusion of hip hop and its electronic cousins. Which isn't the same thing as saying rock is dead, only that it's shifting. Shortly after Wayne Kramer finished playing "Kick Out the Jams" -- still -- at a High Times-sponsored party at Stubb's, London's Asian Dub Foundation offered a reggae/rock/hip-hop hybrid that actually made sense. Together, rapper Master D and guitarist Chandrasonic have tapped into a version of reggae that has some energy to it, enough to excite both the spillover crowd of attendees as well as, um, rock critics scribbling in their notebooks.

At Bloodshot Records' party at the Yard Dog Gallery, though, the stakes for The Future of Music or The Next Big Thing weren't quite so high. The Chicago alt-country label has its boots firmly cemented in tradition, and what the showgoers were giddy about (apart from the free beer) was Alejandro Escovedo, who started in San Francisco punking away with the Nuns before moving to Austin to recast his ambitions. The line of people waiting to buy a prerelease copy of his Bourbonitis Blues was an avid one, and it is one of the best roots-rock albums in recent memory, especially since Wilco's gave up on country to make its own Sgt. Pepper. Escovedo's album's rife with painful, drunken admissions, from his observations at "Sacramento & Polk" to the half-speed, cello-driven cover of the Gun Club's "Sex Beat" at album's end, which reveals the song to be more about desperation than lust.

It's no small thing to garner that level of attention at SXSW. Chitchat abounded at the capacious La Zona Rosa for what turned out to be a disappointing show by professional Band-obsessed mopers Mercury Rev, although Modesto's Granddaddy pulled off the same trick and got away with it, mainly by presenting its absurdist songs as trance music instead of standard-issue rock-pop. The Tin Hat Trio, with its contemplative set of pomo tangos at the Speakeasy, had trouble being heard over its own monitors, surrounded as they were by a crowd of folks babbling over their bourbons; Austin American-Statesman jazz critic Michael Point was standing near the stage, grousing about the lousy choice of venue for a group that functions poorly as background music.

No such problems at the Man's Ruin showcase at Emo's, where the Jack Saints' drummer Regal stripped down to his socks and nipple rings halfway through the trio's set of Iggy-fied slop. And since what got everybody's attention at Dieselhed's show at the yuppified Iron Cactus wasn't so much the bands standard hillbilly folk-punk, but its smooth-rock cover of Mel & Tim's "Starting All Over Again," maybe the problem with SXSW is that the gimmick is what gets you heard. Power, schmower; what's your angle?

That aspect of the conference -- the gimmickry of it, the exclusionary nature of it -- is probably what inspired an angry fan (a fan!) to somehow muscle to the front of the stage near the end of Tom Waits' show and rant -- to Waits himself -- about how she couldn't get into the show, badgeholders got all the good tickets, etc., etc. At that point it was a lost cause, but you can't blame her for trying. If South by Southwest is the whole of the music industry in miniature, it's an industry of gatekeepers: label heads and PR pros trying to define what should trickle down to actual listeners, art and commerce either colliding or running with each other. Eight hundred bands later, though, there was still no better idea about how musicians can use the power Lucinda Williams mentioned, or even if they have it. And whether those gatekeepers have an idea about what's best for music -- or if they're all just faking.

About The Author

Mark Athitakis

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